Cisco Details Plans For SDN 'Spin-In' Insieme

It was clear Cisco had big plans for software-defined networking when it poured $100 million into its SDN-focused "spin-in" Insieme Networks last year.

Since then, however, details of those plans, and what exactly would emerge from Insieme, have been light. That all changed Wednesday when Insieme, along with its vision for the future of data center networks, stepped into the spotlight at the Cisco Live event, taking place this week in Orlando, Fla.

Though Insieme didn't share any concrete product details, it did unveil what it calls a new "application-centric infrastructure," or a next-generation architecture for data center networks, aimed at making those networks more programmable, automated and equipped to handle the new wave of business applications that are emerging from trends like big data and the Internet of Things.

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Soni Jiandani, senior vice president of Insieme, described the new architecture as the next evolution beyond the "first generation" of software-defined networks, or those that run a separate, software-based overlay on top of existing network infrastructures.

The overlay concept has become a popular one for SDN deployments, and it is supported today by companies including Big Switch Networks and Nicira, the SDN start-up VMware acquired last year.

But, according to Jiandani, these overlays ultimately just add another layer of complexity to the network, requiring network administrators to manage them separately and in addition to the existing infrastructures that lie beneath. These overlays also make it difficult to achieve optimal scalability and end-to-end visibility across a network, Jiandani said.

"What I'm trying to convey to you all, ladies and gentlemen, is that making networks simple is difficult," Jiandani said at a press conference Wednesday.

Insieme believes the way to eliminate these complexities is through its new "application-centric" architecture, which it said delivers a common, open platform for managing physical, virtual and cloud infrastructures.

Insieme also said its architecture was built upon a "systems" approach -- versus a box-by-box or traditional overlay approach -- that allows for a common policy management framework to be leveraged across network, security and application teams. Down the line, Insieme said this framework would be extensible to compute and storage, as well.

Another key piece of Insieme's vision is leveraging open APIs along with a mix of both custom Cisco and merchant silicon. Jiandani emphasized that Insieme will not be held back by the "limitations" of merchant silicon, and it will use a mix of Cisco's own custom silicon and ASICs when building out its architecture.

Insieme said a product portfolio supporting this architecture would be rolled out before the end of the year. It also confirmed that Cisco now has an 85 percent ownership stake in the company.

Kent MacDonald, vice president of Converged Infrastructure at solution provider and Cisco Gold Partner Long View Systems, said Cisco's investments in Insieme serve as a validation of SDN, in general, and that this is, in fact, the direction in which the networking industry will move.

"I think a lot of the market was waiting to see what Cisco was going to do, and how serious they were going to take [SDN]," MacDonald said. "So I think just by the comprehensiveness of their statement that they will be and are a player in this market ... it's all very reassuring that this is where people need to invest and this is where we will see the market move to."

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Lane Irvine, director of network services and collaboration at Long View, agreed with Long View's MacDonald and added that, while customers aren't necessarily deploying SDN architectures today, it's definitely something they should start considering now.

"It's somewhat like IPv6 in the fact that we aren’t seeing a lot of customers make extensive use of [SDN] today, but absolutely every customer needs to understand how to prepare for it in the future," Irvine said. "It's going to be here, and it's going to be a really important component of their network."

In addition to Insieme, Cisco announced Wednesday a number of updates to its Unified Fabric and Nexus portfolio. Firstly, the networking giant took the wraps off a new network provisioning solution called Dynamic Fabric Automation (DFA). The aim of DFA is to simplify the management of data center fabrics and optimize fabrics for greater scale and efficiency.

"Cisco is raising the bar in the data center network by bringing the Unified Fabric and setting the new standard for any networking vendors who claim that they are providing data center switching fabric," said David Yen, senior vice president and general manager of the Data Center Technology Group at Cisco, during the press conference Wednesday.

At the heart of DFA is updated version of Cisco Prime Data Center Network Manager (DCNM), which providers a centralized point of management for data center fabrics, along with automated network provisioning, a common point for fabric access and host, network and tenant visibility. DCNM also provides capabilities for provisioning virtual machine deployments, Cisco said.

Lastly, Cisco expanded its Nexus 7000 switch portfolio to include the new Nexus 7700 Series switches and new F3 Series I/O modules.

The new switches, which are scheduled to start shipping in July, include the 10-slot Nexus 7710 and 18-slot 7718. Cisco said the Nexus 7718 delivers the industry's highest capacity 40G and 100G switch with up to 384 40-Gbps ports and 192 100-Gbps ports. The Nexus 7718 has been designed to deliver up to 83Tbps of switching capacity.

The new F3 Series I/O modules are said by Cisco to provide a 60 percent increase in power efficiency compared to its predecessors, and they will be supported by both the 7000 and 7700 Nexus Series.